Some readings on inequality and social unrest

Patricio Navia is a Chilean political scientist at New York University and a prolific columnist and author.   He has a piece on the openDemocracy web site analyzing the background on the student protests and recent general strike in Chile, which he says is far from being a South American version of the Arab spring:

“The student movement is less about opposition to the market-friendly economic model than about inclusion within it, and expanding the range and structure of opportunities it affords. The protesters seek to improve the model with a host of measures: more protection for consumers, more rights for citizens and a more level playing-field so that the middle class can realistically aspire to upward social mobility.”

On the issue of consumer protection in Chile, read the interview with the director of Chile’s National Consumer Service, Juan Antonio Peribonio, in the most recent issue of Chilean-American Chamber of Commerce Magazine. According to Peribonio, Chile stands out in Latin American for its defense of consumers, but his agency is underfunded and hopes that a bill before congress will provide the tools needed to oversee the country’s financial sector:

And for a look at inequitable hiring practices in the Chilean job market, the Santiago Times has an excellent article on the ways potential employers grill job applicants on their families, religious observances and political views.  Although the country’s labor law prohibits such discriminatory practices, they appear to be widespread.  The article quotes one job seeker, a woman with a degree in business engineering who recently interviewed at several major Chilean companies:

“In Chile it is common to avoid hiring women with children,” she said. “In all the interviews I’ve gone to, I’ve been asked if I want more children, if my son goes to kindergarten and if he gets sick easily. I was also told I was not suitable for a position that required occasional travel because it was ‘not compatible with my role as a mother.’”



Chile faces a two-day national strike this week called by student organizations, labor unions and several center-left political parties who are demanding a new constitution, education and labor reforms and increased health care spending.  The last time any civic or political groups called for a national strike was during the Pinochet regime in 1983, and for obvious reasons today’s protesters are less easily intimidated.

But things are already getting ugly.  One student protester on a hunger strike is in critical condition, and Chile’s Supreme Court has ordered police protection for Camila Vallejo, president of the University of Chile’s student federation, and her family. Vallejo has received death threats through social networks and earlier this month a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Culture sent a Twitter message with a phrase used by General Augusto Pinochet: If you kill the bitch, you get rid of the litter. The official was quickly removed from her post, though she denied the message was referring to Vallejo.

Inflammatory language has also surfaced in statements by some in the protest movement.  The president of Chile’s teachers union, Jaime Gajardo, compared police measures to control demonstrations to “Zionist methods of apartheid” and that they were typical of “Zionist movements.” Gajardo’s comments were interpreted as reference to Chilean Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter, who is Jewish, and came under heavy fire from both conservatives and protest organizers.  The president of the Catholic University student federation said Gajardo’s statements “did not represent the student movement,” while a right-wing congressman said the statements demonstrate why Chile’s public education system is so bad. Gajardo later apologized.

Stay tuned.



Unequal schooling

It was five years ago that Chilean secondary students launched a protest movement that mobilized schools up and down the country and as far away as Easter Island.  The students wanted more equitable funding for elementary and secondary school education; the government of Michelle Bachelet made a few concessions but no deep reforms were made, even as the protest movement seemed to die out. (Bachelet did expand nursery school coverage, from 12 to 38 percent, during her four years in office).

This month the student protests returned with a vengeance, with additional demands for a more affordable higher education system. Over the past three decades private universities—of varying quality—have multiplied in Chile and the country now has an estimated 25 public and around 50 private universities. The number of university students has increased from 150,000 students in 1981 to 1.1 million today and two Chilean universities—the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile and the Universidad de Chile—rank among the top ten higher education institutions in Latin America.The Chilean educational picture might not look too bad when compared with that of other Latin American countries, but Chile now belongs to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and sets a far higher bar for itself.  It has the worst income inequality of any OECD member country and the organization also notes corresponding high levels of mistrust among Chileans. Only 13% of Chileans express high trust in their fellow citizens, much less than the OECD average of 59%. The education system is not providing much social mobility, it seems.

The OECD report notes improvements on Chilean students’ scores on standardized tests, but that outcomes “still need to catch up with OECD standards and equity problems should be addressed.”To read the full report:

A good background piece on Chilean education was published a few months ago in the Chilean-American Chamber of Commerce magazine: